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God’s all-knowing plan seen in desperate life of Karen pastor
 

By Barbara Denman

January 2, 2014

 

At 14 years of age Thu Lai Mu and his family were forced into the jungles of Burma, now Myanmar, to escape a repressive, military-led civil war and ethnic cleansing that ended in killing, torture, rape and forced labor of their Karen (pronounced kuh-ren) people group.

“Because we were the minority group, they wanted to wipe us out,” said Lai Mu, making them flee their beloved ancestral homes.

When discovered hiding in the jungles, the family again fled for their lives to Thailand where they were held in a crowded refugee camp along the Myanmar-Thailand border.  For 15 desolate years, Lai Mu endured the camp’s primitive conditions in makeshift huts fashioned from bamboo and leaves, no plumbing or electricity and scant food.

“It was difficult,” Lai Mu recalled. “We were surrounded by barbed-wire fenced. If we go outside, the police considered us as illegals, and we would be sent to prison or back to Burma.”

Their life looked pretty bleak, admitted the young man. “We were a persecuted people. We faced years of persecution.” 

The Burmese people had been converted to Christianity through the ministry of Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson, who served in Burma for almost 40 years in the mid 1800s. And as an outgrowth of that missionary witness, Lai Mu found a new hope while in the refugee camp after accepting Christ at age 16.

Through United Nations oversight, the refugees were able to attend school, which Lai Mu took advantage of and continued his studies for five years at a Bible college.

And he waited and prayed. “God was preparing me in that time. I asked God to lead me in His will. I did not know that he would lead me here.” 

Three years ago, Lai Mu and members of his family were resettled in Jacksonville where a growing population of Karen live in low-income apartments on the city’s Southside. And even through the difficult transition in a strange new culture, he continued to see God constant guidance in his life. “God is good,” he often says.  

Jacksonville was tapped by the U.S. State Department as a resettlement city for Burmese refugees, which included several people groups, as well as the Chin and Karen. The Karen are the largest concentration of refugees in the city, and its language accounts for the second most spoken language in the Duval County School program, behind English.

Lai Mu, now 32 with a wife and child, serves as pastor of the Karen congregation of Jacksonville’s Southside Baptist Church, the only Karen-language-speaking church in the Florida Baptist Convention.

Each week, between 250 and 300 Karen refugees, mostly young adults and children, pack a room at the southside church to worship and study the Bible in their own language. Many wearing traditional garbs, the Karen fill every available chair in the room to listen to Pastor Lai Mu preach from God’s word.

His arrival in Jacksonville was “an answer to prayer” said Southside Pastor Gary Webber, at a time they were looking for someone to lead the congregation.

The planting of the Karen church began when Southside discovered the large concentration of refugee families during a Backyard Bible Club held at a nearby apartment complex. There they found a group brought to a strange land by refugee resettlement agencies who were overwhelmed and bewildered by the urban foreign culture.

Compelled by their needs, Southside started English as a Second Language classes specifically to minister to the group.

From these ESL classes grew a new church.

As an outgrowth of the ministry, Southside members began meeting the multiple needs of the Karen community: translating for the baffled non-English-speaking parents at schools; accompanying them to doctor and hospital appointments; and navigating them through a maze of immigration and government bureaucracy. The church provided citizen classes which helped the refugees understand the norms of the American culture and laws, and recently began a Pre-kindergarten class to prepare the preschoolers for school.

“Our heart for the Karen people just opened up,” said Webber, who was called as pastor of the church in 2008. “As we began ministries the Karen began recognizing Southside as a place they experienced love and acceptance.”

The Christian refugees began attending worship services and events at the church, even if they could not understand the words or make conversation. As their numbers grew, a worship service in their own language was provided for the adults while the children who were speaking English in school were assimilated into Southside’s Sunday school classes.

In the process, while the church ministered to the Karen people, a renewal took place at Southside, an inner city church experiencing turbulent times and a downward cycle.

“As we sacrificed ourselves, God just wanted to pour out blessings. We found a renewed heart for ministry and a new understanding of being a church,” said Webber. 

At first, the Karen church elected men from within to preach and lead. When Lai Mu came, both the Karen church members and Southside leaders saw his quiet servant leadership skills. 

He was tapped as pastor and in a partnership forged between the Karen church, Southside Church, Jacksonville Baptist Association and the Florida Baptist Convention, the congregation became Florida Baptists’ only Karen language church plant.

The state convention provided start-up funds and church planting assistance said Rick Lawrence, Florida Baptist church planting field missionary. Lai Mu currently participates in church planting peer learning groups jointly sponsored by the convention and association. 

Much credit must be given to Webber’s mentoring of the young pastor, said Lawrence, crediting the older pastor with guidance, encouragement and support of the younger man.  

Since Lai Mu took the helm, the church has grown by more than 50 percent and new believers have been baptized. He spends as many as 12 hours a day meeting the needs of the Karen refugees, joined in this ministry by Southside member Laura Miller, who works tirelessly on their behalf.

“God is very powerful and we are blest because we found Southside,” said Lai Mu. “God prepared this church for us. It is a blessing.”

 “I pray to God, if He wants me to lead this people, it is your will, give me more wisdom. I pray God will do His will.”

In God’s infinite wisdom, Lai Mu’s desperate journey has brought him to the place that He had prepared him for, helping his people cope with physical needs while thriving spiritually in a place they could never have imagined.
 

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